A renowned Buddhist teacher and the bestselling author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche attracted huge crowds – and when he set up a temple in France, the Dalai Lama himself attended its inauguration.
But then the stories started to emerge of his violent temper and sexual assaults. Mick Brown investigates
In August last year, Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama – whose book, The
Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has sold more than three million copies around the world, and made him probably the best-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher after the Dalai Lama – gave his annual teaching at his French centre, Lerab Ling.
Sogyal’s organisation, Rigpa (a Tibetan word meaning ‘the essential nature of mind’), has 130 centres in 30 countries around the world, but Lerab Ling, situated in rolling countryside in Hérault, is the jewel in the crown. Boasting what is said to be the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the West, it was formally inaugurated in 2008 by the Dalai Lama, with Carla BruniSarkozy, then France’s first lady, and a host of other dignitaries in attendance.
Sogyal is regarded by his students as a living embodiment of the Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion, but a man who teaches in a highly unorthodox way, known as ‘crazy wisdom’.
At Lerab Ling, more than 1,000 students were gathered in the temple as he walked on stage, accompanied by his attendant, a Danish nun named Ani Chökyi. Sogyal, now 70, is a portly, bespectacled man who requires a footstool to mount the throne from which he customarily teaches. Approaching the throne, he paused, then punched the nun hard in the stomach.
‘I guess the footstool wasn’t in exactly the right position,’ says Gary Goldman, an American student of Sogyal’s of more than 20 years’ standing, who was seated in a front row. ‘He had this flash of anger, and he just punched her – a short gut punch. It just stunned me. I thought, “What the hell’s that about?” Everybody around me kind of gasped. She started crying, and he told her to leave, and then he started his talk.’
‘To see the master not as a human being but as the Buddha himself,’ Sogyal has often told his students, ‘is the source of the highest blessing.’ Those attending his teachings are cautioned not to be surprised or to draw ‘the wrong conclusions’ about the way he might behave. Apparently irrational, even violent conduct should be viewed as ‘mere appearance’. But punching a nun in the stomach... It was customary for students at the retreat to email any questions they might have on the day’s teachings to Sogyal’s senior instructors. ‘ We all wrote something up,’ says Goldman, a former US Army Ranger who served in Vietnam. ‘I said that I understood his methods were unconventional, but punching Ani Chökyi was knocking the ball out of the park. I’ve seen this kind of thing in the military and we don’t do that any more – at least not legally. But on the other hand, if this was another part of his “crazy wisdom” teaching, we seriously needed to talk about it.’
The next day, one of the Rigpa hierarchy stepped up to address the doubters. Sogyal, he said, was upset that people should question his methods. If people didn’t understand what had actually happened, then they probably weren’t ready for the promised higher-level teachings, in which case Sogyal would not teach again during the retreat.
‘This is what he does,’ Goldman says. ‘When something comes up, he’ll very skilfully manipulate his students to get them back in line.
‘I just thought, I’m done with this...’
Largely thanks to the benign, smiling example of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism has grown enormously in popularity in the West over the past 30 years, escaping the scandals that have dogged other religious institutions – at least publicly.
Within the Buddhist community, however, Sogyal Rinpoche has long been a controversial figure. For years, rumours have circulated on the internet about his behaviour, and in the 1990s a lawsuit alleging sexual and physical abuse was settled out of court. Yet his position as one of the foremost Buddhist teachers in the West has remained remarkably intact – until now. In July, eight senior and long-standing students sent a letter to Sogyal. ‘Longsimmering issues with your behaviour,’ it began, ‘can no longer be ignored or denied’ – it then listed a catalogue of damning allegations against him.
Sogyal’s habitual physical abuse, it alleged, had ‘left monks, nuns, lay people and students of yours with bloody injuries and permanent scars’. He had used his role as a teacher ‘to gain access to young women, and to coerce, intimidate and manipulate them into giving you sexual favours’. Students, they claimed, had been ordered to strip, ‘to show you our genitals’, ‘to give you oral sex’, and ‘to have sex in your bed with our partners’.
‘If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations is actually the ethical and compassionate behaviour of a Buddhist teacher,’ it went on, ‘please explain to us how it is.’
Copied to the Dalai Lama, and Sogyal’s most senior students, the letter quickly went viral, shaking the foundation of Rigpa to the core. For Sogyal Rinpoche himself, it was the prelude to the most spectacular fall from grace.
Sogyal Lakar was born in Kham, in the east of Tibet, into a family of traders. When he was six months old, his mother put him in the care of her sister, Khandro Tsering Chödrön, who was the young consort – or spiritual wife – of an eminent Tibetan lama, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, who became Sogyal’s guardian. In 1954, the family fled to Kalimpong in Sikkim. Jamyang Khyentse died when Sogyal was around 11, and Sogyal had little formal Buddhist training – few in the Tibetan community have ever attended his teachings. He was educated at a Catholic primary school in Kalimpong, then at an Anglican school, St Stephen’s College in Delhi.
In 1971, he arrived at Trinity College Cambridge, taking a course in theological and religious studies, although he never graduated. It was in Cambridge that he met Mary Finnigan, then a young Buddhist student, now an author and Sogyal’s fiercest critic, who has been assiduous in her chronicling of his alleged misdemeanours. At that time, there were only four Tibetan lamas living in Britain. ‘There was nobody teaching in London and there were no centres,’ Finnigan says. She arranged Sogyal’s first teachings, in the squat where she was living in London, and would remain his student until 1979.
Sogyal was an exotic presence; a Tibetan who could speak fluent English and seemed to know what he was talking about. His following rapidly grew, and with a £100,000 donation from a well-known English comedy actor he was able to establish his first centre in London.
Assuming the honorific Rinpoche (it means ‘precious one’), Sogyal set himself up as a teacher in the Vajrayana, or tantric, tradition – a deeply esoteric aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, through which, it is believed, a student can unshackle the chains of ego and attain enlightenment in a single lifetime: ‘the helicopter to the top of the mountain’, as Sogyal has put it.
It involves the student giving total obedience to the lama in the belief that whatever the lama does, no matter how irrational or incomprehensible it may seem, is for the student’s benefit. Tibetan Buddhist lore is filled with stories of great masters – or mahasid
dhas – bringing their pupils to enlightenment by methods that appear to verge on madness. One of the most famous involves the 11th-century mahasid
dha Naropa, whose teacher Tilopa subjected him to a series of ordeals including leaping from the top of a temple and breaking his bones, jumping into fire and freezing water, and giving his wife to Tilopa as an offering. Fundamental to this master-and-disciple relationship is the bond of samaya, or trust. Breaking samaya is held to have the most grave consequences, including banishment to ‘vajra hell’ and an infinity of unfortunate rebirths.
In 1976, Sogyal visited America to meet with another Tibetan lama, Chögyam Trungpa, who was regarded as the most extreme exemplar of ‘crazy wisdom’ teachings. Trungpa drank like a fish (he would die in 1987 from complications arising from alcoholism), openly slept with his students and ran his organisation like a feudal court. ‘The real function of the guru,’ he once said, ‘is to insult you.’
‘Sogyal looked at what Trungpa had,’ says Mary Finnigan, ‘and said, “That’s what I want.”’ Like Trungpa, Sogyal adopted an unorthodox, often jokey, teaching style, but he was a compelling orator, with an ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. In 1992 he published The Tibetan Book
of Living and Dying, a book that presented traditional Tibetan teachings on a happy life and good death for a Western audience. John Cleese, an early supporter, described it as ‘one of the most helpful books I have ever read’.
It was a runaway success. But quite how much Sogyal himself had to do with it is debatable: according to those close to the project, most of the work was done by ghostwriters – Sogyal’s closest student, and now his right-hand man, Patrick Gaffney, and the author Andrew Harvey.
The book made Sogyal a celebrity. He appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Little Buddha, and he travelled the world, establishing new centres. The combination of Sogyal’s charisma – a purveyor of ancient wisdom in touch with the modern world – and the romantic mystique of Tibetan Buddhism proved a potent lure for new followers. Those attending his courses had little idea that, as one former follower puts it, Sogyal was ‘using meditation as a gateway drug into a cult of personality’.
But the first storm clouds were already gathering.
Sogyal is not a monk, and there is theoretically no prohibition on him having sexual relations. But his sexual conduct was becoming a cause of increasing controversy in Buddhist circles – not least his surrounding himself with what was effectively a harem of young women, whom he described as his dakinis – a Tibetan term meaning ‘spiritual muses’.
In 1994, an American student, using the legal pseudonym Janice Doe, brought a suit against Sogyal alleging that, using the justification of his spiritual status, he had sexually and physically abused her, turning her against her husband and family. This, the charge alleged, was merely one example of a pattern of abuse against a number of women. The case was settled out of court. And most readers of The Tibetan Book of Living and
Dying remained happily oblivious to any hint of scandal. Rather, the book was a powerful medium in bringing him new followers.
Among them was a yo ung Aust ra li a n woman, who would later become a Buddhist nun, taking the name Drolma. She first read Sogyal’s book as a 21-year-old. ‘I thought, “That’s all very nice, but I don’t need this.”’ Two years later, with her life ‘falling apart’ following an abortion and the break-up of a difficult relationship, she attended a retreat in New South Wales where Sogyal was teaching. ‘My life was at a point where I had no understanding of the suffering I was going through, and this provided some answers, and some practical steps, like meditation.’
Drolma became more involved in Rigpa, travelling to Lerab Ling for retreats and facilitating study groups. In 2002, she turned her back on a flourishing career as an artist to become a nun. ‘There was this aspect of devotion for the teacher that I felt very strongly. I felt it as the fire of the love of God.’ Even before taking monastic vows, Drolma had witnessed an example of Sogyal’s ‘crazy wisdom’ when he publicly humiliated a male attendant during a teaching session.
‘He’d forgotten to put a full stop on the travel plans or something; Sogyal made him kneel at the foot of the podium and then run backwards and forwards across the tent. I felt terribly uncomfortable but I also thought he was very fortunate to have such close attention from the teacher.’
Sogyal made Drolma his personal assistant, handling his schedule. She would later become responsible for caring for his mother and aunt, Khandro, when they came to live at Lerab Ling. Her duties entailed maintaining a careful rapprochement with the inner circle of Sogyal’s dakinis. ‘Their lives were incredibly pressurised,’ she says. ‘There was lots of jealousy, lots of secrets. If one of them was unhappy or in a mood then all of us would feel the repercussions, so we also had to do our best to keep them supported.’
The first time Sogyal struck her, hard on the head with the backscratcher that he carries everywhere, Drolma says she accepted it as part of his ‘wrathful’ training. ‘I thought, “Wow, he really trusts me…”’
It was the beginning of years of physical abuse and verbal humiliation. ‘If he became anxious about his mother, or over a relationship with a girlfriend or some financial thing, he would slap me across the face, or hit me over the head.’ On one occasion, he pulled her by the ear so violently that it drew blood.
The first time he punched her in the stomach was in the anteroom of the temple at Lerab Ling, where Drolma was preparing his ritual objects prior to an important ceremony for a visiting lama and his retinue of monks. ‘He got out of the car, furious for some reason, slammed the door and just punched me. Then he got dressed in his robes and we went in. I was walking behind him in tears, feeling completely humiliated.’
The Telegraph has been given numerous accounts, by signatories to the letter and others, of similar abuse meted out to Sogyal’s closest students, explained away by senior instructors within Rigpa as the lama employing ‘skilful methods’ in the tradition of the great mahasiddhas of the past. A woman being beaten violently around the head with a backscratcher. A man being kicked, punched in the face, pinned against the wall by Sogyal with his hands around his throat, and hit so hard on the head with a hardback book that he fell to the floor.
‘I would go back to my room at the end of a day of it thinking, “What the hell was that about?” But still hanging on to the trust that this is part and parcel of the purification of negative karma,’ one man, who was a student for 20 years, told me. The thought of reporting Sogyal to the police, he said, never crossed his mind. ‘These are criminal acts. But the problem is we’ve been complicit; we’ve allowed it, and he keeps doing it.’
In this environment, everything would be rationalised and accepted as ‘a teaching’. Several people told the Telegraph how Sogyal would sometimes address his closest students while defecating – like a Tudor monarch, ordering his dak
inis to perform the appropriate ablutions as a demonstration of ‘service’. The analogy with a monarch is not misplaced. It is further alleged that among his inner circle, Sogyal frequently practised a sort of droit du seigneur, taking the wives or girlfriends of his most loyal male followers as his sexual partners, either openly or covertly. The eight-signatory letter further alleges that on at least one occasion, Sogyal had offered one of his female attendants to another lama for sex.
For a woman to be chosen by Sogyal as a sexual partner was regarded as ‘an honour’, Drolma says. ‘It meant they had dakini qualities, and you’re said to be prolonging the life of the master.’
For Drolma herself, the contradictions between Sogyal’s teachings and his behaviour finally became too much to bear. She confided her feelings to a visiting Spanish nun. ‘I’d always been trained to keep everything secret from anyone outside; but I ended up telling her everything. She said, “That’s straight-out abuse. You’ve got to leave.”’
In 2010, Drolma travelled to Taiwan with three other nuns from Lerab Ling for monastic training. She returned to France, but not to Lerab Ling, hiding out in Paris, before eventually making her way home to Australia. The following year, she summoned the nerve to go back to Lerab Ling for the cremation of Sogyal’s aunt, Khandro. ‘It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ she says. ‘I was in nun’s robes and still keeping my precepts. Wearing robes you have one arm bare, and he touched me there, as if I were a sexual object. It made my skin crawl.’ The cremation over, she returned to Australia, and gave up her robes. ‘Looking back,’ she says, ‘I think I’d lost all faculty of being able to discern clearly what was going on. He absolutely ground me down. And I
‘Among his inner circle, Sogyal practised a sort of droit du seigneur’
felt ashamed to leave my friends; ashamed to go back to my family and say I’d made a mistake.’ She pauses. ‘There’s so much shame in all of this.’
Within Rigpa, a culture of secrecy and denial prevailed among Sogyal’s inner circle, the worst excesses of his behaviour kept hidden from the thousands who would attend retreats and teachings.
‘It’s like an incestuous family, where you keep the secret in the family,’ one woman, who claims she was sexually abused by Sogyal, told me.
But, inevitably, allegations of impropriety began to leak out on the internet. In 2011, Mary Finnigan, the English author and former student, published a document online – Behind The Thangkas – charting Sogyal’s history of alleged sexual abuse, and claiming that there was a sub-sect within Rigpa known as Lama Care, set up specifically to make sure that women were available for sex with Sogyal wherever he travelled, and that dakinis had been pressured to take part in orgies.
In 2015, the president of Rigpa France, Olivier Raurich, resigned, explaining in an interview with the French magazine Marianne that, ‘I had come for teachings on humility, love, truth, and trust, and I found myself in a quasi-stalinist environment and permanent double-talk.’ Within Rigpa, he was denounced as an opportunist who was simply seeking publicity for his own career as a meditation teacher.
The following year, a French academic, Marion Dapsance, published a book, Les Dévots du Bouddhisme, containing further allegations of abuse, and the ‘cult-like’ behaviour of Sogyal’s inner circle. A response posted on the Lerab Ling website described her portrayal as ‘extremely prejudiced’ and ‘unrecognisable’, invoking the Tibetan teaching of training the mind in compassion, called lojong, with its core principle of ‘give all profit and gain to others. Take all loss and defeat upon yourself ’.
In this context, the letter went on, Sogyal, following the example of ‘great saints of the past’, would never respond to such allegations.
In July, as the eight-signatory letter spread like wildfire, Sogyal wrote an open response to members of Rigpa. He had spent his whole life, he wrote, ‘trying my best’ to serve the Buddha’s teachings, ‘and not a day goes by when I am not thinking about the welfare of my students’. But following advice from his own masters about ‘obstacles’ arising for his health and life in general, he now intended to enter into retreat ‘as soon as possible’.
Through all the years of rumours and revelations about Sogyal’s behaviour, one group maintained a conspicuous silence: his fellow Tibetan lamas. Sogyal’s large following and considerable wealth made him a powerful figure within the Tibetan Buddhist community. He has donated generously to monasteries in Nepal and India, and other lamas have frequently given teachings at Lerab Ling, their visits lending authority to Sogyal’s credentials.
While consistently condemning unethical behaviour among lamas, the Dalai Lama has never specifically commented on Sogyal by name. But last month speaking in Ladakh, he returned to the theme, repeating that students ‘must not say, “This is my guru, whatever my guru says I must follow.” That’s totally wrong.’ If a teacher is behaving unethically there is a duty to make their behaviour public. ‘Now recently,’ he went on, ‘Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend, but he is disgraced…’
To the outsider, it might have seemed a fleetingly incidental reference; to the Buddhist community it was tantamount to excommunication.
Just a few days after the Dalai Lama’s speech, Sogyal announced that he was ‘retiring’ as spiritual director of Rigpa, citing the ‘turbulence’ the allegations against him had caused. There was no acknowledgement of abuse, and no expression of apology or regret. He’d continue as their teacher, though. ‘Please understand that I am not and never will abandon you! I have a solemn commitment to help bring you to enlightenment and I will never renege on that!’
The Telegraph contacted Rigpa with a detailed list of the allegations contained in this article, asking for a response. The organisation replied saying it had no comment to make. Instead, it referred the Telegraph to a press release, announcing Sogyal’s retirement as spiritual director.
Having sought ‘professional and spiritual advice’, that statement says, Rigpa would be setting up an investigation by ‘a neutral third party’ into the various allegations; launching a consultation process to establish ‘a code of conduct’ and ‘grievance process’ for Rigpa members; and establishing a new ‘spiritual advisory group’ to guide the organisation.
Rigpa declined to specify what form this independent investigation will take, or whom the ‘spiritual advisory group’ will consist of, saying only that ‘independent professionals’ will lead the internal investigation and ‘this will probably commence mid-autumn’.
Sogyal’s last public appearance was on 30 July, in Thailand, speaking at the Seventh World Youth Buddhist Symposium. His talk, on the subject of meditation and peace of mind, made no mention of the scandal that had engulfed him. ‘If your mind is relaxed and at ease,’ he told his young audience, ‘no matter what crises you are facing, you will not be disturbed. Even when difficulties come you will be able to turn them to your own advantage.’
Quite what advantage he can take from his present predicament is open to question. Following submissions from former Rigpa members, The Charity Commission is now conducting an enquiry into the affairs and governance of Sogyal’s organisation, the Rigpa Fellowship in the UK, and former students are exploring pressing criminal charges.
One leaves a spiritual organisation, Drolma says, with a mixture of feelings – relief, shame, guilt for those left behind. ‘I haven’t turned my back on the Buddhist teachings, but it was important to let people know what was going on. Sogyal is an abuser, he’s delusional, and he has created real, deep harm for people, and that’s not right in any place at all.’
‘It’s like the Buddha said,’ Goldman told me. ‘Everybody wants to be happy in life. So you join an organisation; you feel good, people are nice, you start to participate more; you invest a lot of time, perhaps a lot of money. At some point it becomes a part of who you are. And to give that up is incredibly painful.
‘Right now, I’m very unhappy. But a lot of people just can’t give it up; they’re tied to Sogyal; they’d be giving up an authority figure, probably a father figure; psychologically, it would be a huge loss.’ In July, as the furore over the damning letter gathered pace, stories circulated on Buddhist sites of the incident in 2016 when the nun, Ani Chökyi, was punched in the stomach. In response, Chökyi posted a reply on a closed Facebook page, saying that Sogyal’s teachings at the retreat had been ‘loving beyond any ordinary description’, and the punch to the stomach ‘taken out of a greater context’.
‘I have agreed to the skilful means of my master to purify and transform my delusions into clarity and uproot my attachments,’ she wrote. ‘Sometimes these means can be wrathful and not always a pleasant experience, but that is what I need, to be able to see through all the layers of ignorance that keep me blinded and stuck.’ Sogyal, she went on, ‘was definitely not in a fit of rage, there was just a single moment of wrath, which manifested in a soft punch, but it was neither violent or abusive, at least not to my feelings.’
Drolma posted a reply. She could understand Ani Chökyi’s perspective completely, she wrote, because that was how she had once justified Sogyal’s behaviour. ‘If the student getting this kind of “special training” has a history of abuse in other relationships in their life (as seems to be the case of many of us, including myself ), then it is so much more natural, even comforting to receive wrathful attention from someone who is also telling us they love us deeply.’ But then, she wrote, ‘just like the flick of a switch, I recognised that “this is abuse”. And with that, I started to reflect on all the ways in which I had allowed it to happen.
‘It was like in The Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is finally pulled back and you realise there is no “all-mighty Oz”, there is just a little man shouting into a microphone…’
Above Sogyal Rinpoche photographed at Lerab Ling, and as a guest speaker at a healing seminar in Melbourne in 2004